Monday, August 29, 2011

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #23: Love Story (1973)

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old. Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time.
The only good thing to come out of the 1973 schlock-fest Love Story is the remixed Shirley Bassey cover of its instrumental theme.  This is, of course, in spite of the fact that while watching Love Story I grew to loathe the theme song, to hate its repetitive cycle, to groan audibly and claw the air as if reaching for some imaginary shotgun stored on some imaginary end table.  Love Story was physically painful.  It was lethal to me, like some cinematic kryptonite which, at the molecular level was custom designed to make my face screw up so tightly in disgust that I couldn’t even speak out against its innumerable evils.  I couldn’t laugh in Love Story because it wasn’t bad enough to be funny.  I couldn’t empathize during Love Story because its characters are empty husks.  I couldn’t even yell at the TV when the doctor reveals Ali MacGraw’s character is dying of an ailment without a name because I WAS TOO BUSY RAISING MY EYEBROWS AND MAKING THAT SLACK-JAWED, TEETH BARING FACE THAT EXPRESSES COMPLETE, ANGRY CONFUSION.   Love Story is the worst.  Love Story is a raw archetype, a graph that maps out everything to come over the next 40 years, but which adds nothing to the collected data.   How Love Story was once nominated for Best Picture, I can’t fathom.  How Ebert gave this movie four stars is beyond me.  How Love Story became a sort of classic everyone knows about is mystery enough to qualify it as the eighth world wonder.  Love Story makes those Nicholas Sparks movies look like nuanced masterpieces.  Love Story makes The Way We Were into an absolute work of art.  If the only two movies you ever saw were Love Story and Something Borrowed, you’d think that Something Borrowed was Citizen Kane
Here is the plot of Love Story:  it’s a love story.  That’s it.  Two mismatched kids meet at college (as they tend to).  He’s (Ryan O’Neal) a jock from a family responsible for building half of Harvard, she’s (Ali MacGraw) a brainy librarian type with strange eyebrows and a father who owns a bakery.  She’s got a smart mouth on her, and that’s how we know she’s got depth.  She calls old moneybags “Preppie,” plays a verbal game of hard to get (but not at all), and says vomit-inducing cornball catchphrases like “love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  Which, as far as I can tell, is a gross exaggeration.  They meet.  There’s a lot of snow.  BOOM!  Love. BOOM!  “We’re gonna get married!”  BOOM! “It doesn’t matter what you say, daddykins, I’d rather live poor than without her!”  BOOM!  She’s sick.  BOOM!  She’s dead.  Oh, I’m sorry, did I spoil the most predictable film ever for you?  Good.  Don’t watch it.  Unless you’re searching for a primer in 1970’s prep university sportswear, you have no reason to revisit this film. 
Supposedly Love Story was a beacon of warmth and innocence in the midst of a grand period of sexual license and upstart young film makers.  This may be a partial excuse for its existence, but it’s not one that I accept.  Here lies a film so full of its own idealistic notions, so high on your salt water tears, that it can’t even be bothered to grant the audience real moments with its characters.  Love Story writes in big bubble-block letters, it sketches in broad outline.  It shows us a boy, a girl, a death and forgets that between all of these pieces there must be other scenes.  A full-grown boy cannot be characterized solely through his rebellion against wealth.  A girl cannot be painted simply as ‘sick.’  And a death that is not sudden can’t be shown without strife, without symptoms, without bringing these other pieces together even as it tears them apart.  If I hadn’t already realized this movie could never live up to the hype, I would have given up all hope the moment Ryan O’Neal’s Oliver is told his wife is dying by a doctor who is clearly overstepping his bounds.  In this scene, Oliver and the doctor sit in his office.  It goes exactly as follows:

"DR: The problem is more serious. Jenny is very sick.
O: Define "very sick".
DR: She's dying.
O: That's impossible.
DR: I'm sorry to have to tell you this.
O: That's impossible. It's a mistake, it has to be.
DR: We repeated her blood test three times. The diagnosis is correct.
She'll have to be told soon.  We can withhold treatment for a little while, but not for long.
We'll have to begin therapy sometime during the next few weeks.
O: She's only 24.  Will it be painful?
DR: You'll want to talk to a haematologist. I can refer you to Dr Addison.
O: Yeah. What do I do? What can I do for Jenny?
DR: Act as normal as possible, for as long as possible.  That's really the best thing." [source]

Tell me a six year-old couldn’t have written that.  Tell me this isn’t a scene ripped straight from innocent versions of “playing doctor” complete with a little plastic satchel and a stethoscope that doesn’t work.  The film leaps from a diagnosis of infertility to this conversation.  Directly.  Notice that the Doctor never gives his diagnosis, the one that was tested three times.  My theory is that the film is presented in broad strokes because (like Twilight) its characters are designed to be sad, pathetic ciphers we fill in the gaps for.  Somehow, the writers of both novel and film wanted their audience to ascribe their own identities to these people, or identify them as people we already know.  If you’re a woman who can fathom falling for a sensitive, wealthy jock, or, if you’re a man who can fathom turning your back on your parents in the name of love, then this movie is supposed to be about you.  When Jenny gets sick, she’s either you or your girlfriend.  When Jenny dies, she does so too young.  She is: your sister, daughter, girlfriend, malleable best friend, and you.  Cue the tears, not for her, but for your own meddling little life.  I don’t think I could ever cry while watching Love Story, but if I were going to, it would be because Jenny never gets to live.  The story strips her down to a silly archetype destined to be the object of affection for Oliver.  By 24, she’s taken, married, and dying.  Though she’s experienced love (and some may argue that’s enough), she hasn’t experienced life.  Ultimately, Love Story seems to ironically prove that love is often folly, that life is short, and that the sap and dreck the film wastes its time on really might be a waste of time for everyone.  Screw the sugar-coated catchphrase, I want to hear someone say they're sorry.  Someone should apologize for the events depicted in Love Story because I’m sorry Jenny spent the whole of her early 20’s trying to get pregnant, fighting class wars, and eventually dying too young.  That's a raw deal.  If you ask me?  It's not the broken romance that deserves tears, it's the time Jenny winds up wasting or giving over to Oliver's story.  She never gets hers. That's something to cry about.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Love: Our Idiot Brother

I've been starting to feel old lately. It's not a bad thing but there are times when I look back and realize, wow, we've come a long way haven't we old girl? Watching Our Idiot Brother was one of those times.
Not bothering to figure out anything about the movie beforehand, I expected the usual Judd Apatowian (he has nothing to do with this film) man-child comedy. What I got instead was the aging hipster equivalent of Nora Ephron. Like my parents who experienced Diane Keaton in the Woody Allen days when she was young and "alternative," Our Idiot Brother made me realize how they must feel now as they laugh and relate to her in 50's and 60's playing beside the equally aged Jack Nicholson in something like As Good As It Gets.
Our Idiot Brother is a nice, sweet movie. It's not jam packed with laughs (but it is funny), nor are its laughs all that close to the absurd or raunchy. Like the whitewashed million dollar kitchens of a Diane Lane/Richard Gere movie, it too is full of idealized landscapes, this time of the hipster generation, from the organic farm that Ned works on in upper state New York to the Brooklyn brownstones where Liz and Dylan raise their pre-school prodigy, and finally the industrial brick loft where lesbian couple Nat and Cindy reside with about 20 other roommates from exotic locales like the Ukraine.
The conflict is also pulled straight from the likes of the upper-crust rom com/dramedy, centered around Ned (Paul Rudd), a darling, Dude-like organic farmer who's arrested after selling a cop some pot.  Sweetheart Ned is surrounded by a group selfish New York archetypes for sisters. Liz (Emily Mortimer) and Dylan (Steve Coogan) struggle to get their son into an upper level pre-school only to realize that all this focus on playing the shinai and refusing to let him watch movies was cutting his childhood short. Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), a struggling yet still high profile reporter for a Vogue-like magazine wrestles with her integrity as she uses Ned to get the facts on a story she shouldn't be printing, while Nat (Zooey Deschanel) acts in the wandering lost way that all of Deschanel's characters do as she interacts with girlfriend Cindy (Rashida Jones). As you can imagine, the charming Ned is abused and mistreated, often comically, until the sisters realize just how important he and his values are to them. 
Reading the above makes it seem like this movie is a boring Hollywood affair which, I suppose it is. But underneath it all, Rudd musters enough heart to make you care up against the backdrop of Deschanel, Jones, Banks, and Mortimer who all know how to make even the most wooden of characters seem alive, if only briefly. I once asked my Dad why he and my Mom bothered with things like It's Complicated, and he told me that sometimes, it's nice to see people your own age. Maybe I'm falling into that same trap, because even though there's a lot of trite bullshit to be found in Our Idiot Brother, I found myself enjoying the pleasantness of it all anyway.

Late Night Trailers: The Rum Diary

Johnny Depp has been trying to get this adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's The Rum Diary made for years, if I'm remembering correctly, meeting all kinds of development issues and delays along the way.  I'm not sure what the hang-ups have been, but in late October we'll finally get to see the actor take on his second role as a Thompson stand-in.  What this run lacks in Terry Gilliam madness, I'll hope it makes up for in a return to form for Depp.  The wacky, cleaned-up Disney version of the actor has its charms, but damn this better make up for  The Tourist. 

Late Night Trailers: The Artist

It won a serious amount of Oscar buzz earlier this year at Cannes, and now we have a trailer for The Artist, a brand-new silent film by Michel Hazanavicius.  The story is a familiar one: major star meets movie extra, her career takes off.  While I have no doubt it's going to be a piece of black and white throwback glory, I must admit to not being completely sold by this little montage. To paraphrase Norma Desmond, in the silent era, they didn't need words, they had faces.  For me, what always made a silent film work was a combination of slight overaction and expressive eyes.  Maria Falconetti gave the ultimate silent performance in Passion of Joan of Arc, and you could read the pain on her face from a mile off looking at a single frame.  By comparison, this trailer features a lot of staring into the distance.  I'm sure the pieces will come together, but something about it doesn't feel right.  Too of the moment or deliberately gimmicky.  If you'd shown me this trailer out of context, I'm quite sure I would have thought it just another ambitious designer perfume ad...

Monday, August 22, 2011

Love: Fright Night (2011)

Last year, at some point in the early AM hours of Halloween, we cracked open the 1985 original version of Fright Night.  Only a few of the marathon partygoers remained awake and the costumes had largely been exchanged for sweats, but those who stayed the course were treated to the perfect sort of camp horror.  That Fright Night was the stuff slumber parties are made of; the ideal teen paranoia flick chock full of cheesy catchphrases, clubby dance scenes, and unsettling notions of just how bad it would be to find no believers when a murderous vampire  moves in next door.  Too often, cult horror classics are remade without regard to the original.  Friday the 13th and  Nightmare on Elm Street are two prime examples of films recently retooled in an effort to kill instead of playfully maim.  I worried, in the early trailers, that Fright Night would lose its light heart and become a clone like all the rest; heavy handed sturm, drang, an undercurrent of psychosis, and heaping doses of sexualized gore.  Happily, my worries were unfounded.  Fright Night is the rare remake that celebrates its origins instead of working to “fix” them.  In some ways, I’d argue, it’s a much more effective film that gets a hell of a lot right even as it works steadily within the conventions of its genre.
Fright Night is a delightfully action packed popcorn movie, the sort of gleeful fun that makes you forget you spent those extra few dollars to see it in 3D (even when the effects turn out to largely seem an afterthought).  That may seem like a simple enough feat, but too many big-budget draws miss the mark.   Fright Night is a rare breed; the short, sweet, clever gem that rides the adrenaline rush to completion, successfully suspends your disbelief, and gives you characters you can care about without guilt.  Considering the volume of vampire flicks that have been released over the last few years, the fact that this one can pull off the traditional garlic-and-cross-eschewing, no-reflection fanger without leaving its audience unimpressed is grounds enough for praise.  All hail the old-fashioned monster movie!  See love-struck teenagers fight off pure fictions!  Watch as stakes are picked up and mere mortals take back the night! 

While Anton Yelchin does a fair enough job carrying the film as aforementioned teenager number uno,  the success of our 2011 remix ofFright Night can be attributed to a handful of key factors with a couple standouts.  Colin Farrell and David Tennant own their roles here.  Farrell appears to be living it up as Jerry, the killer vampire in construction worker’s clothing.  It’s a brilliantly camp performance that nervily sidles up to overacting, incorporating a full arsenal of Ken doll smiles, facial tics, and wary glances.  The result is a monster a far cry from the glamoured seduction and velvet boudoirs of Twilight, True Blood, and Anne Rice.  Jerry’s not a cool customer or an over-sexed goth, he’s the unhinged dude next door with a pick-up truck.  There’s real menace at play in his confident, macho swagger;  Jerry’s the type who will hit on your mom, drain a six pack, and then have no qualms about bleeding you dry.   In manic contrast to Farrell, Doctor Who’s David Tennant turns on a different smarmy charm as a Criss Angel type of illusionist enlisted to assist in the slaying.   He is the anemic, dorky, goth kid.  He is chaffing in his skintight leather pants.  He is constantly taking swigs of Midori straight from the bottle.  He’s also hilarious, shamelessly upstaging his co-stars in every scene he’s in. 
This last bit can, perhaps, be attributed to yet another of the factors that makes this movie work:  Marti Noxon is the writer.  Noxon has a slew of TV credits to her name, but the most important here is her work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show that few media scholars will bother to argue against.  An intimate knowledge of Buffy’s brand of occult panache, melodrama, and sparky teen dialogue can’t hurt with this material.  Fright Night’s little tweaked twists and shallow banterings are polished perfectly, so smooth that everything slips by without effort.  Think about it.  It may not be “the smartest movie in the world”  but in a film that spends most of its time on creature violence and cliché, not noticing glaring bits of awful dialogue is very nearly a miracle.  We can thank Noxon, I’d say, for giving us a bigger-budget horror film we can laugh with and not at.   I’d imagine we have her to thank for setting the action in Las Vegas, as well.  As one character observes: where better for a creature of the night to go unnoticed than a city in which everyone is nocturnal?  Vegas is an example of the simplest detail reaping the largest rewards.  From it, we are given sleek modernism and a fresh landscape; a hint of artifice and excess surrounded by the harshest of pitch black suburban terrain.  All of these pieces add up, and if you’ve got the right frame of mind for a mindless good time,  Fright Night is a pop indulgence and a hell of a lot of fun.  At the very least?   It doesn’t suck…

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #22: 8 Mile (2002)

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old. Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time.
I’ve never really cared for Eminem.  It’s a funny thing, I suppose, because I’m certainly a fan of hip hop.  My iTunes contains a high number of songs I’m sure are just as purposely offensive as anything Eminem has produced, sometimes moreso (including recent additions in the form of selections from OFWGKTA (though I’m partial to Mellowhype over Tyler, the Creator)).  While there are a couple tracks from the bug-eyed Mr. Mathers that have been allowed admission (albeit begrudgingly) to my hard drive, there’s just something about Eminem that’s always struck me as…sort of boring.  His cleverness is wrapped in bitter, juvenile entitlement, his diss tracks have devolved into obnoxiously repetitive harpings, he’s got a voice that makes every song sound identical to the last, his instrumental backing tracks are phenomenally underwhelming, and when he shocks he does so in a way that suggests he has only partial insight into his own psyche.  So, I care for Eminem about as much as I care for the adolescent boys who turn their baseball caps backwards and snort with laughter as they watch his videos for the first time.  By which I mean, yeah, not at all.  In fact, if we’re going to be real about it, a huge part of why I can’t stand Eminem is because of his fans.  True Em fans, in my experience, are like those college dudes Sacha Baron Cohen road trips with in Borat; they’re often not capable of being in on the joke even when Eminem himself is.  They hear only the anger, never the wordplay.  It’s an easy thing to do, I think, when someone seems to be fairly incapable of controlling the volume of their voice…

Anyhow: when everyone else was going crazy about 8 Mile, I was staying about as far away as I could.  “Lose Yourself” was a good song.  I can’t deny this.  It deserves the Oscar.  But strange things were happening when people watched 8 Mile.  People I knew would come back and, instead of merely being impressed by the music, say “Eminem is a pretty good actor”  or, what really grossed me out, “Eminem is hot.”   It was very disconcerting.  How could someone who’s most public introspective moment was in the form of “Stan” suddenly be a wealth of empathetic emotion?  In the true spirit of Eminem, I wasn’t really into finding out what I was missing.  I was far more content to sit over here and come up with slam after slam of my own.   Most of them beginning and ending with something force rhyming boring and annoying.  “Your insults are all tepid, your acne scars all decrepit.  You look like a hopped up gerbil pondering a crystal method.  Take a tweekend, visit a f*cking museum, get some culture so you can curate your own goddamn feelings without using top 40 radio like Tony talked to Lorraine Bracco…..something something, boring, annoying, there you have it.”  Ok, I didn’t really do that.  I suspect I’m not so good at freestyling (and have completely avoided that mode on my Def Jam Rapstar, which I have because I’m a geek), but I did just make that up.
THIS IS NOT THE POINT. The point is that I watched 8 Mile, and it wasn’t bad. It was pretty good, actually, as underdog tales from the urban wasteland go. What’s worse? While I was watching it, I started to feel really sympathetic for Bunny Rabbit (Eminem), and, by proxy, Eminem. He’s never been more likable and, knowing what I’ve seen after years of watching the rapper through his public persona, I was rather surprised to see an Em who was willing to step back, be vulnerable, and allow himself to be shown as more submissive than gratingly Type A. There are different stories out there. Some say the film is a loosely interpreted version of Eminem’s pre-fame life story, others that the similarities begin and end with being an aspiring hip hop artist in Detroit. We’ll call it semi-autobiographical, but obviously working with the understanding that its audience would equate one with the other and not be able to fully distinguish between the two. As Rabbit, Eminem gives us a young man who chokes up in spite of his talent, who lives in a trailer with his mom, who stands up for folks picked on in the factory lunch line, and who begs for more hours to try to achieve his American dream. The story is true working class grit, rife with an organic feel and racial anxieties. Within it Rabbit is the downtrodden hero who we understand could transcend all if only he could get in the studio to record his demo.

 What I got from 8 Mile, apart from a partial respect for Eminem’s origins and skills, was an odd notion of his discomfort with his whiteness. There are some very strange racial tensions going on here, and it’s hard not to notice that in order to gain the respect of his musical peers, Rabbit needs to essentially lay claim to his genetic makeup. All his rivals harp on the color of his skin, ideas of white trash vs. what can only be described as stereotypically white privilege, the stigma of his economic situation, and attacks that further challenge their perceived understanding of his status as outsider. Rabbit is anxious, so are his competitors. What to make of a film that flips our societal issues with racism and sets up a situation in which proclaiming one’s whiteness and finding “power” from that is the only possible heroic outcome? Why are so many of the victims white? I don’t think I’ve ever encountered that in a film that wasn’t supposed to be a negative portrayal, and I don’t know what to think of it, but something about it makes me uncomfortable, probably because it was a purely accidental subtext; like the comfortable benign racism that comes from growing up in a diverse neighborhood, going to a diverse school, and deciding it’s ok to call things the way you see them simply because “your best friends are X, Y, Z.” Then again, I’m probably reading too much into this. I’m going to go and think up a bunch of rhyming words to use in case I ever wind up in a freestyle battle.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Love: The Help

Last year, in an effort to see what all the fuss was about, I read Kathryn Stockett's massive bestseller The Help.  To put it simply: it's not my cup of tea.  As a book, I found the story a little too loaded with artificial sweetener, rather dull, filled with easy outs, and somehow chock full of accidental implications that I found peculiar, and at times rather troubling.  That summer, I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was that bothered me so much about The Help.  I was bothered, in part, by its niceness.  I was also disturbed by what I remember as a lack of temporal markers; it was a book set in the early 60's that barely acknowledged sea changes in pop culture.  Then, of course, there was the way Stockett had written all the African American women in dialect, while their white Southern 'bosses' all seemed to speak perfect English.  Above all, perhaps, I found it a prosaic yawn that reached for gravity, but was content to step back and avoid upsetting its reader too much.  You know, the type of book Oprah's book club members might pick up to feel an odd justification or nostalgia for the dark times.
 Yes, negativity and cynicism when it comes to best selling fiction are strong suits of mine, but I'm also able to admit when something decent arises out of the sub-par popularity contest for space on your Kindle.  What I mean to say is that the film is a noted improvement upon the base text.  This is remarkable, considering how closely the movie's authorized screenplay actually follows Stockett's novel.  In translation, however, the pieces fall together.  Certain injustices are evened out, and Miss Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), the young white college graduate who takes up a hot topic civil rights interview session essentially to grab the attention of a New York liberal editor, is pushed back in favor of the film's true stars: the actual help.  Where the book left me completely cold, finding little more than anecdotal evidence of dimension in several of the characters, the film's great saving grace lies in the strength of the attitudes, sparkling quips, and all-time lows of its on-screen personalities. There are some fabulous  performances in The Help, and they're the type Stockett's writing wasn't strong enough to embody.  The actresses, specifically Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, manage to transform these characters so thoroughly into people we enjoy watching that the result distracts completely from the side controversies, plot defects, and miscellaneous baggage the story comes with.  
For those not in the loop on literary trends, The Help follows our young heroine Skeeter as she returns home to her small, bigoted Mississippi town upon that aforementioned graduation.  In her absence, her social circle has opted not for education, but for marriage, babies, and bingo luncheons.  The ladies are a sharp turn from Skeeter in nearly every respect.  They're cold, plastic, phony Stepford wives who fall at the mercy of their evil leader, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard).  Hilly's word is law in these parts.  She sets all precedents.  Of course, Hilly is a tremendously callous racist whose primary hypocritical platforms include forcing the help to use toilets outside of the house (because she believes black people are some sort of filthy sub-species of human), saving the starving children in Africa, and exiling bubble blonde new kid Celia Foote from joining refined society.  Too much.  Skeeter can't handle it any more than we can, and begins communicating in secret with Aibileen (Viola Davis) and later, Minny (Octavia Spencer), the trampled upon maids of her former friends.

What follows, naturally, is a tale of bonding and self-discovery.  We're supposed to be touched by the struggles of Aibileen and Minny, indeed we are.  Davis and Spencer shine outright, Davis, in particular is a shoo-in for Academy Award recognition.  She carries herself with an uncertain grace, like someone who knows she deserves better, but has been shot down too many times.  From her lips, Stockett's condescending dialect plays more like the song of the South, and less like a marker of the difference between races.  She's got heart, and consequently we care about Aibileen's relationship with her best friend Minny and her trust in Skeeter.  Partnering up with our love for Aibileen is our loathing of Hilly Holbrook, who Howard plays with such an exacting nastiness that it will be hard to separate the soft-spoken actress from the sharp tongued villainess seen here. Stockett's framework is twisted so that the story is allowed to filter more through her than the faulty heroism of another white protagonist.
Still, while The Help's acting transforms its narrative, and makes for a solid enough piece of entertainment, I couldn't help but find myself struck by so many of the controversies surrounding the story.  The film may correct quite a bit, but it still can't completely wash away the quarter ton of sugar dusted over its rough edges.  There's something to be said, I think, about Viola Davis (who has been fantastic in other roles) breaking through as a household name in a roles as a resurrected, vitriolic Mammy figure. There are questions to be asked too about what it is that makes Skeeter so enlightened when her peers are anything but.  We must remember that the time portrayed was a truly dark era for the women who are at the heart of this story.  We must remember further that though Skeeter does assist in repairing the pride and self-respect of a woman like Aibileen, the danger she's in at the film's conclusion is not a cause for rejoicing.  The risks these women take would have been very real, by my understanding.  Lives would have been on the line, homes, families, and reputations as well.  Strip these women of one of their only means to the crucial end of supporting their families, and nightmares may follow.  Sometimes, it seems as though though Skeeter means well, she has no way of really understanding what she's working at.  Sometimes, it seems as though the film is content reducing dangerous racial tensions to petty cat fights.  Sometimes, it seems as though it's been created as a vehicle for white viewers to first recoil, and then feel uplifted by a story that's only half finished.  It's nice, but I sat waiting for the bottom to drop out.  When it didn't (and did you really think it would?), I only felt nervous. We do not see the real darkness here.  We only see shadow plays.  

Friday, August 12, 2011

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #21: Meatballs (1979)

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old. Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time.

Dear Mom & Dad,

It's raining, so I figured I'd write you to tell you personally that you totally wasted your money sending me to this lame summer camp.  Man, this camp blows chunks.  Was the point of this to cure me of my self-esteem issues? Because, newsflash: I totally don’t have any.  Pat yourselves on the backs, great success, whatever whatever because hey, guess what, compared to all these assholes I’m amazing.  The kids here are real immature punks with no personalities.  I know I’m a mopey son of a bitch, but compared to these kids I’ve got at least a little bit of what dad calls “character.”  I hate you for sending me here, cuz you really don’t get that I’m too old for summer camp.  I’m mature, man.  No one should have to pay to send me here, they should pay me for being here because I’m like way more together than the counselors, who are cool but also weird.  
I hang out with this one guy Tripper, who is like really old, maybe 30, but I like him better than the kids cuz at even though he’s a spaz he lets me play poker instead of sit around talking ghost stories and made up girl stuff with those jerk offs in my cabin.  What kind of kid hangs out with adults at summer camp?  This kid.  All I have to do is act sad and they’re all like, hey kid, come play for the majors, we got beer, no curfews, and early morning jogging.  I’m all about early morning jogging.  I can run circles around these ass wipes.  Tripper ain’t a bad guy, but he’s really out of shape in his old age.  I wear jogging shorts way better.  You may not have noticed, but I’m totally on the verge of becoming a man.  I don’t want to brag, but I’ve found a few hairs where there weren’t any before, so I’m pretty much so ready for college it’s not even funny.  No more of this lame arts and crafts stuff.  I don’t need this shit.  What am I supposed to do with a lanyard?  Real men don’t wear lanyards.  I bet they don’t even do arts and crafts at Camp Mohawk.  Or, if they do do arts and crafts at Camp Mohawk they go out and hunt big game and kill like a panther or something and then make a really awesome rug for their bachelor pads.  That’s what real men do.  Not lanyards. You probably knew that dad, so I don’t know why you pretend otherwise.  I’m not a kid anymore.  I don’t need to play sleepover with all of these babies.  I don’t need to wake up in a cabin that smells like piss and car air fresheners and crushed twinkie.  Even this dork counselor spaz has more game than those babies, and his glasses are so thick that they could probably be like Archimedes’ death ray if you shot the sun through them.  
Yeah, that’s an Archimedes reference, because when I’m not jogging, drinking beer, learning to make stubborn advances at chicks who say no until they say yes, and gambling, I’m reading books about stuff that these punks have never heard about.  Man, I’m going to kill in college.  That’s when I’m going to hit my prime, man.  It’s going to be phenomenal.  Those chicks will love this whole brooding thing I’m cultivating.  Yeah, I said it, cultivating.  You didn’t even know I knew that word, did you mom?  Hell, maybe I won’t even go to college.  I don’t need it.  Instead I’ll just move into a cabin like Tripper and concentrate on irking chicks until they surrender to me.  Summers will be fresh,  I’m going to get so much college girl ass it’s not even funny.

Love you and miss you.  See you in two weeks.  Please send candy bars (but no Milky Ways), my arrowhead collection, my green pair of adidas shorts, and some extra tube socks?

Rudy, esq.   

PS: Even though this is bullshit, if you don't send me back here next year I'll probably hate you forever.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Love, Jointly: The Trip

Separated by location but never apart, M and Wilde.Dash finally get around to reviewing The Trip....Trip style. Winterbottom's newest film is an extension of the British TV show of the same name. In it, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, mostly playing themselves, travel through the Northern English countryside testing out gourmet cuisine, ruminating on life, and doing Michael Caine impressions.

M: So Wilde.Dash, are you glad I've finally responded to emails and decided to write something on our site? Or, should I call you Nigel? Nigel, didn't you find it scary and oddly comforting that watching The Trip was like being in a college flashback? Or wait...are you Bernard? I feel sorry for our roommates that dealt with our stupid pseudonyms and accents. But honestly during The Trip I felt like I was watching an alternate universe where you and I were men, older, and British.

Wilde.Dash: I think I'm Bernard, actually, because I seem to always remember you saying Bernard in that way that was "Burnherd" when we communicated in our horrid Cockney accents, which I think were really just Monty Python voices. Like, Terry Jones as a woman. "I thought we were an autonomous collective!" Yeah, considering the number of sit-down pseudo interventions held in that dorm, I'm surprised they didn't plop us down and tell us enough was enough...

M: I can never keep track of our various aliases. I'm glad someone remembers. I'm also glad no one murdered us in our sleep. addition to the food (which even at its weirdest made me hungry) and the incredible scenery, The Trip was just a pleasant movie for me. It said nothing of value. It was more like slipping into warm covers with a tattered copy of your favorite book and being read to sleep by your grandmother, which is odd considering most of the dialog revolved around Steve's disillusionment and Rob missing his wife and shaking his head at Steve.

Wilde.Dash: Ok, that was a leap. I was like, Helen Mirren be serving up her lover on a platter soon? Then, you know, I sorted it out. Oddly, the food in The Trip sort of exhausted me, as I think it did Coogan and Brydon's alternate selves. Would have rather been on a diner tour, personally,  but yes, The Trip was the best sort of pleasant movie, I think. But, to get at the real reason as to why that is, I think we need to ask the question: in our duo, are you Steve or Rob? I can guess at the answer, but the folks at home obviously need to hear the real story...

M: I think it's clear. I don't mean to compare you to a womanizing, drug taking, lost soul, but let's face it. I'm the one with the heartwarming, goofy, aw shucks quality. At least your nose isn't as big as Steve's. Of course, you're not womanizing nor do you do drugs, so that leaves you with Steve's cooler qualities.

Wilde.Dash: Ha! I'm glad you clarified I never had a drug-taking, dating Courtney Love phase.  And yeah, if by cooler qualities you mean that sort of meandering, unsettled, desperate need to make a name for oneself while also occasionally dipping into bouts of egomania, narcissism, and competitiveness, than yes, that sounds about right. The negativity perhaps as well.  And we can't forget the affinity for ABBA.  I'm with you, while I watched this movie it became less about two middle aged dudes on the road and transformed into something I could oddly relate to. I honestly couldn't completely pinpoint exactly what it is, but somehow that dynamic was very much our friendship while not being that at all. You wouldn't think two 20-something girls would identify with this movie, but somehow I was like, Rob Brydon...totally [M.], which I think is something that many others may experience with their own lives, you know?

M: I do. And I suppose now that we're being honest I should admit that I share Rob's annoying goofiness and naivete that makes you want to shake him. I think the overarching theme was that while these two mostly famous British men repeated the same routine at each Northern English restaurant, you get inside them. You really are watching yourself, seeing the raw exposed wounds underneath the surface as if you sliced through life with a big meat cleaver and were studying the layers like a geologist. What did you think of the ending? I actually thought that Steve brought enough interesting drama that the forced, "look at Steve, he's lonely, he's sad," was unnecessary and gave the film a bit of a saccharine feeling.

Wilde.Dash: I thought so too, I'm not sure I read the ending as saccharine so much as looking for some sort of unnecessary gravitas, though. The contrast between their lives was intriguing, but it seemed as though Winterbottom had decided that he had to do something more than just make this a buddy movie and open up this little thesis, like no one would take the film seriously enough if it wasn't there. False, for sure.

M: Well, despite all that, I think I really did enjoy it. It was good old anglophile comfort food with two of my favorite actors that left me hungry and yearning for a trip to England. Overall, I dig it....and feel the need to start working on my impressions. I'm seriously lacking skills these days. Can you say Zhu?

Wilde.Dash: Um, I can indeed say Zhu.  What was that great thing he said about what he'd do if he knew the world was ending?  Or, wait, was it what he'd do if he were about to die....?

M: Can we be talking about this here? Yes, it was funny. For all of you in the cheap seats, we're talking about an inside joke here. Speaking thing that did knock my enjoyment down just a notch was that like all good conversations between two people, it got a bit repetitive for those of us on the outside. I know Steve and Rob were enjoying themselves, but by the end, I was like, yes, that's enough of that. Perhaps the TV show format works better for that reason...

Wilde.Dash: Hey, hey, hey, I'm of the opinion that when it comes to Michael Caine impersonations as competitive sport, it may not be possible to have enough in a 90 minute run time.  And yes, totally an inside joke, totally fair game, and let me just drop a hint: I think the answer was along the lines of "have the sex with everyone, take all the drugs."

M: I blame you if everyone discovers who we are now :) Yes, the impressions were a huge highlight even when Steve kept downplaying. I've been making the significant other listen to the little blurb from NPR's Fresh Air where they play that clip with Steve and Rob in a Michael Caine impression death match every time we get in the car. I think he's starting to get tired of it, but me...never.

Wilde.Dash: Ahaha! Fantastic!  Maybe instead of the main course, this film is like an appetizer to hanging out with us on a day of great unseriousness.  Yes, that's not a word, but we do have our bouts of melancholy paranoia.  I mean, there have been just as many talks about literal end of the world scenarios as there have been gallivanting moments of feigning Clouseau-esque Parisian accents and being Kate Hepburn...I feel I've become quite good at this, btw, thought the only way I can get into that is by saying "and all sharp elbows and knees, beware" from The Aviator...Have you tried out a small man in a box impersonation by any chance?  Because that's one I certainly can't even seem to give a proper go at.  Perhaps, though, in your kinship with Rob, you'll be better at it.  Quick: try saying "I CAN'T GET OUT!"

Wilde.Dash:  Oh, wait!  There was another moment in which I felt we were watching ourselves, and that was when Steve felt it appropriate to put on that Joy Division song for an over-dramatic soundtrack to their car ride...

M:  I KNOW!!! OMG IT WAS FREAKY IN EVERY WAY. And no, I can't seem to figure out how to make my voice do that. But as the Rob representation, I'll have to try. 

Wilde.Dash: We've got to wrap this up, but let me just say: I will never forget that Batman + Catwoman themed mix CD you used to store in your car.  I'm sure there was at least one Joy Division song on it, just as I'm so glad Steve and Rob have validated the fact that I occasionally sing Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights" in the car.  That said...shall we slap a heart rating on this?  I'm for 4.5? 4?

M: It wasn't Batman and Catwoman, and no we are not going to discuss the other characters it actually referred to. Why you insist on making me look like a nerd when it's so easy to see how cool I am I'll never understand. At least its better than listening to the actual Wuthering Heights soundtrack...which I also do.  The Trip did have great moors. That said, I'd say I'm down with a 4.5.

Wilde.Dash:  It was those other characters, wasn't it?  Though I could have sworn there was a Batman in there as well.  Obviously, this makes you awesome.  I concur, 4.5.  Quite.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Love? Squalor?: Cowboys and Aliens

The still you see above is the pudding proof of what this film is all about.  Yes, that's a cowboy.  Yes, that's the eerie blue ray of an alien craft.  Yes, that's Daniel Craig's ass in neatly tailored pants and chaps.  I note this as someone who typically would pay absolutely no attention to Daniel Craig's posterior (or, really, anyone's for that matter).  Here, though, it was like every scene was about the ass.  It was insanely hard not to notice Daniel Craig's behind.  In all seriousness, as I watched Cowboys & Aliens I became more and more convinced that Jon Favreau had called a meeting with his cinematographers and crew and together they had a discussion that went like this:

JF: "Look, straight up?  We got James Bond for this film."
C&C:  "Right, right, we know."
JF: "He's a Brit, so he's not the natural choice for a cowboy, but he's got one thing that will make everyone forget..."
C&C:  "Well, I mean, he's a pretty good actor..."
JF:  "Yeah, well, forget that, not the point.  The point is: did you see that scene in Casino Royale? The one with the speedo?"
C&C:  "Sure..."
JF: "Well, picture that...but in chaps."
C&C:  "What are you saying?"
JF:  "I'm saying I want you to think of Daniel Craig as two people.  Right?  He's in two leading roles, ok?  He's not Daniel Craig, he's Daniel Craig's ass and Daniel Craig's chin.
C&C: "......"
JF: "You're right, I know exactly what you mean, we need Daniel Craig's pectoral manboobs to play a supporting role.  Let's write in some scenes without the shirt.  Alright everyone?  We're losing the shirt..."
C&C: "....."
JF: "Ass. Chin. Pecs.  He's a skinny little Ken doll.  A skinny little tight end.  I want everyone to want to grab that thing."
C&C: "......"
JF: "If you're not focusing on any of those three things...give us Harrison Ford's scowl."
C&C: "......."
JF: "That's it.  Remember: Ass. Chin. Moobs. Scowl.  So money.  Beautiful.  Good talk."
Alright, so maybe there's a little more to the film than that.  I laughed the first time I saw the trailer for Cowboys and Aliens.  Hell, I laughed the first time I saw the oh so slightly punny project title.  It's an absurdly honest descriptor, up there with Bad Teacher and Horrible Bosses, pure summer blockbuster cross-genre pollination.  Part of me wishes the film were as kitsch and camp as the title implied.  Monikers like these, after all, deserve punchy bad dialogue, casual dismissal of plot, and a cameo appearance by Hugh Jackman.  The film had great potential as a raucous B-movie trip.  Imagine the possibilities: frontier people speaking in stunned trances about lights in the sky, Westworld-esque cyborgs sent as Klaatu spies amongst the saloon patrons, a sequel titled Cowboys & Aliens 2: In Space!   I'd pictured relentless action, flayed cows, and a 19th century X-Files investigation into whether or not the disappearances were the work of Native American Skinwalkers.  Surprisingly, though, and perhaps disappointingly, Cowboys takes itself rather seriously.  I'll be the first to admit that the film works better than I'd anticipated.  Favreau cast Daniel Craig wisely, and he adds a hefty ounce of tough man-with-no-name gravitas to his role as extraterrestrial battling sharpshooter Jake Lonergan. We learn to like Jake, and we learn to like him quickly.  He's got a knack for a smartly timed swift kick to the groin, and somehow details like that make for outstanding character references when we have little else to go on.  We give Jake our vote of confidence and because of this, our relationship with the hero transforms an otherwise ludicrous film into something agreeable.
While Cowboys & Aliens is just as silly as it sounds, it does manage to be a quick and painless bit of entertainment.  All things considered, actually, it's a perfectly standard western.  The aliens here want gold, just as any other self-respecting bandit.  We're not sure why they want it, but we know that it's rare.  We can assume they need it for chunky chains and hoop earrings.  So, we have alien bandits, a mysterious stranger, a suffering town, a lady with a pistol, and a bitter old businessman (Harrison Ford) bleeding the town dry.  They play it straight, and - against all odds - this works well enough.  It's an odd bit of brainwashing. Because the actors are playing everything cool and with conviction, the film becomes easy to go along with. So, just shrug your shoulders and accept that Cowboys & Aliens is a thing that exists.  You shouldn't think too much while watching the hulking monsters attack, because if you do, your brain may actually explode.  Since your brain has been shut off, you will notice things like Daniel Craig's ass.  Don't be alarmed: he is most certainly wearing pants that are too tight for any reasonable cowhand to maneuver in.  You may also find that you're perfectly comfortable learning that another in the search party is "not what they seem,"  that Harrison Ford is just there to frown, and if you see a knife in the first act, it'll be used in the last one.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Squalor: The Change-Up

It's never a good sign when a film is as overexposed - months ahead of time - as The Change-Up has been.  Months of pre-movie trailers and repeat advertisements should have been all I needed to avoid this film at all costs, but somehow I wound up in that ice box of a theater anyhow with the slightest glimmer of hope.  After all, the trailer had had a humorous moment or two, and this has been a solid enough summer for R-rated comedies. Confession?  I'm not sure why I stayed past the first five minutes.  Perhaps we can blame "The Holmes Index," and say the weather was hot and humid enough for me to stay put even after watching a torrential amount of baby shit spurt into Jason Bateman's face, an ugly as sin digitally rendered baby bang its skull with super-speed against a crib, and Ryan Reynolds wake and bake with his disconcerting dead shark eyes.  There's simply no other excuse.  I should have walked out right off and gotten my $8 back.  Instead, I sat through the entirety of The Change-Up without laughing and can say with some degree of certainty that this is the most detrimental piece of drivel aimed at adults to be released this summer.
This is a film that isn't sure if it's a high concept comedy, a romantic comedy, a children's movie, or a sex comedy, but instead of eventually settling with one, it works too hard at being rampantly ADD.  The Change-Up is a dumb little terrier of a film that yips, yaps, humps your leg, and has to try, constantly, to achieve anything at all.  As it works to please it acts out irrationally and gnaws on your patience, valuing offense above all else and shooting to shock in scene after cringe-inducing scene.  There are moments where you may think it may be alright, that things are evening out, that the film is being housebroken, but then it goes and leaves you a present in your Jimmy Choos.  The result is the constant stink of absolute desperation.  Everyone involved in The Change-Up is in a constant state of overacting, as though the director was standing off to the side with a whip screaming "more, do it louder, spit take harder, make us hate ourselves."  The shame is that these are decent actors with a fair number of solid comedic performances in their pasts.  While the Freaky Friday body switch is obviously at the heart of the story, it quickly becomes all of the story, leaving a trail of bodily fluids, tears, and character shells in its wake.  Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds play childhood friends (this in spite of the fact that Reynolds appears quite a bit younger than Bateman) who have set off on very different paths.  Reynolds plays stereotypical stunted adolescent Mitch, a slacker out of work actor who gets girl after girl with some sort of magical combination of misogyny and abdominal muscles.  Bateman is Dave, the nice guy cliche worker bee who "has it all": wife, kids, nice house, great job, cash to burn.  They piss in a fountain, make an accidental wish out of mutual politeness, and wake up in each other's skins and saying the darnedest things.
Post-body swap, all things become sophomorically bipolar.  The characters are so far apart in their outlook that prior to the swap, we were already questioning what they saw in each other.  Mitch is self-involved, narcissistic, and terrible.  Dave is merely bland.  Ryan Reynolds may have been the wrong actor to cast in this film, but watching Jason Bateman exit his straight-man comfort zone and slip into the role of crazed idiot is painful.  Whoever wrote Mitch is a sadist, I think.  In fact, the creators in this film must simply hate all of their characters, and have made the film solely to share this burden.  We're given no reason to care for them, our collective empathy is not appealed to.  Instead, what we see are people so foolishly narcissistic that they nearly destroy one another's lives.  While there's little to say about her acting, Olivia Wilde may be the bright spot of The Change-Up (though we could say the same about Sydney Rouviere, the little girl playing Dave's daughter).  As Dave's co-worker Sabrina, Wilde's got enough of a personality to at least distract us from the vile bouts of mayhem, gay panic, and more Mitch and his mouth are involved in.  Still, Wilde isn't much more than an alternate Megan Fox and Sabrina isn't a strong enough female role to stop the film from belittling  both genders.  This movie makes men look terrible, yes, but it also allows for a depressing number of lady-bashing cliches and poor, ignored housewife conventions.  So, The Change-Up is a failure in many regards.  It's not much of a film, and it's certainly a botched comedy.  In fact, while we're on it, I should mention that it's also an egregious trailer offender as the majority of the scenes shown in the advertisements aren't even present in the final cut, at least, not in the manner you've seen them a dozen or so times. So, apart from an acute observation comparing children to drug addicts, The Change-Up is a depressing display of  American idiocy that panders to the lowest common denominator.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Squalor: Friends with Benefits

The joke was that Friends with Benefits is an unnecessary movie.  It's a clone, a bit of deja vu, a rehashing of No Strings Attached with the other half of the Black Swan lesbionic duo.  Then, the comments changed to an acceptance of Friends with Benefits as the better, funnier version of No Strings Attached.  Granted, the latter was certainly no prize winning stallion, and I'd prefer to see Justin Timberlake over Ashton Kutcher any day, but is this really the better of the two?  Hard to say.  Since, however, I lost interest in seeing how this played out somewhere in the middle, I'm going to go with a rather tepid maybe not.

Where No Strings played off of bright, sunny, Califorina vapidness to achieve total nothingness, Friends attempts to be so self-aware of its own habitation of the sphere of romantic comedy drivel that instead of managing meta-commentary, it's often painfully phony.  There were several points of no return for me: one comes early in the film when we're forced to witness a remarkably cheesy flash mob "I <3 NY" non-sequitor as a sales point for Manhattan, the second comes later when, instead of speeding along with relationship dynamics, we're given a sad, sticky, unpleasant bit of senility to grapple with in a film that's otherwise all fluff and pop culture references.  After a few amusing enough scenes, I was left cold and almost entirely unsure what Friends with Benefits was trying to be.  Basically, I stopped laughing, started eye rolling, actually checked my phone, and concentrated on possibly getting a burrito once the credits rolled.
The story is just as you expect, and the progression of events is fairly conspicuous as well.  Justin Timberlake plays Dylan, a smart-talking magazine art director who has opted to be emotionally closed off.  Mila Kunis is Jamie, the head hunter responsible for spearing Dylan and dragging him across the country, who has also decided to be emotionally unavailable.  Jamie is portrayed as social, but we never actually meet any friends closer to her than Dylan quickly becomes.  The lead-in to Jamie and Dylan's sexual tennis pairing (there's really nothing else to call it) features a fair amount of comedic moments, and their first session is admittedly hilarious.  As things progress, however, the film drifts further and further into cliche, tedium, and an oddly delusional sense of its own uniqueness.  That burrito began to feel as though it were hours away.  Only Woody Harrelson's magical momentary appearances as a stupendously gay GQ sports editor could save me from the unceasing pop playlist of mediocrity and meh.
I had hopes for Friends with Benefits.  The cast was right.  Down to the supporting roles (Patricia Clarkson as Jamie's mother, Richard Jenkins as Dylan's father, Emma Stone in a fleeting scene as Dylan's ex-girlfriend), the actors involved promised something potentially sharp, biting, and savvy.  What I wanted was a solid contemporary sex comedy, but Friends with Benefits only had moments in which it stayed out of the shallow end of the Hollywood rom com pool.  In those moments, it allows for some clever modern turns. Jamie is a fresher, far more capable female character than the bulk of Heigl and Hudson brand leads we usually see.  She makes her own decisions for the sake of her own independence without seeming damaged in the way Natalie Portman's No Strings character was.  Her personal allegiances, and the sincerity of the friendship between Jamie and Dylan, are the film's saving graces.  It's hard not to like Timberlake and Kunis, but it's all too easy to take note of the flinch-worthy breeziness of the script, the way the sounds always seems to be laid too loudly over muted, unrelated pop songs, and how stilted the exchange of clever remarks feels.  In the end, unfortunately, the positive aspects are piled under constant GQ advertisements and sit com sensibilities.  Friends with Benefits is a distraction, but of the syndicated rerun variety and not the rollicking bit of fun one might hope.  It really would have been better, for example, if I'd been sitting on the floor eating a burrito and watching it on TV.  Want a rom com?  Go see Crazy, Stupid, Love.    

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